TAMPA — When manatee season begins next month, fewer human swimmers will be joining the marine mammals in Crystal River’s breathtaking Three Sisters Springs.
Starting Nov. 15, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will limit the number of people allowed to enter the popular springs during the winter months, when waves of manatees migrate into the region for warmth and food.
There is currently no limit on how many swimmers can enter the springs at one time, said Andrew Gude, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional manager.
The service originally proposed limiting the number of swimmers to 29 but it is now considering even tougher restrictions.
“What we’ve come up with is what we feel is a manageable approach to allowing some manatee viewing without shutting down the spring,” said Ivan Vicente, visitor services specialist for the Crystal River/King’s Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Businesses that make their money off the manatees are hoping wildlife managers come up with a number soon — and let the public know about the changes, said Diane Oestreich, who owns Bird’s Underwater with her husband Bill.
The changes are just six weeks away, Oestreich noted, and many questions remain. For example, wildlife officials sent notice that they’re giving a break to businesses conducting tours in the area by not requiring them to renew their permits for next year because they may feel a financial hit from the new regulations.
Much of Bird’s Underwater’s business comes from diving tours, where people swim in natural springs with manatees.
Oestreich said the lack of information threatens to confuse the public into thinking swimming is prohibited in a much wider area than Three Sisters — perhaps all throughout the Crystal River/King’s Bay area, home of 70 springs and the largest winter refuge for manatees on the Florida Gulf Coast.
“If it’s not clarified, it will greatly affect our business,” she said. “You can’t swim with manatees anywhere else except maybe Homosassa.”
She hopes the wildlife service will notify the public that swimming is still allowed in other areas.
“I personally don’t think Fish and Wildlife is going to shut down the whole canal,” she said. “That would be unfair to visitors.”
The water in Three Sisters is a year-round 72 degrees, and in recent years the number of manatees entering the springs has grown exceptionally high.
Vicente with the wildlife refuge said that during the season, there usually are about 100 manatees in the springs at any one time. But on Dec. 27, he said, 534 manatees were counted at one time, setting a record for that region of King’s Bay.
Three Sisters’ food sources are big attractions for the manatees. The surrounding areas of Crystal River have become plagued by pollution, clouding the once pristine waters. Recent storms also have washed saltwater into the bay, killing much of the hydrilla – an aquatic plant and a vital food source for manatees.
“The water quality has so declined that Crystal River is no longer crystal,” said Gude with fish and wildlife.
Oestreich said more than water clarity or food, it is the warmth that attracts manatees to the springs.
“The Gulf can be 55 to 58 degrees, so the springs are like bath water for the manatees,” she said.
When manatees do enter the springs, they are often driven off by visitors who want to swim with them, wildlife officials say.
“Interaction with them – touching them and not keeping your distance from them – it’s compromising the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act,” Gude said.
Inadvertent interaction is a problem as well, Gude said, because the aquatic mammals sometimes initiate the contact.
“The spring run is five or six feet wide at its narrowest,” Gude said. “You cannot have people and manatees going in without getting in each other’s way.”
Patrick Rose is a marine biologist who has served as executive director of the Save the Manatee Club since 2006. He said the wildlife service’s new restrictions will help manatees, but it needs to go a step further.
“We strongly believe that the less-than two acres of water in Three Sisters should be a winter sanctuary … where people can see and enjoy manatees from the boardwalk while diving can continue to occur in the rest of the 600 acres of the bay outside the few acres of sanctuaries,” Rose said.
Viewing from a boardwalk, he said, gives visitors an opportunity to observe manatees undisturbed in their natural habitat.
In the meantime, Rose said, the Save the Manatee Club has volunteered to install underwater cameras in the springs so wildlife officials can monitor how divers behave around the manatees.
“We think that’s kind of a no-brain thing to do,” he said.
Human disturbance can change manatees’ behavior, Rose said. Swimmers sometimes disturb female manatees as they try to nurse a calf. Other times, Rose said, disruptions uproot manatees that are trying to recover from injuries.
“Having those natural springs available to manatees is very important to their current and future survival,” he said.
Oestreich disagreed, saying mothering manatees are too big and strong to be displaced by humans.
“It is a myth that people separate a mother from a calf,” she said.
Oestreich said businesses along the river have agreed, however, that Three Sisters has become too crowded with rental boats and individual visitors during the winter months.
“Our solution was to limit interaction in the head springs to guided, supervised tours only,” she said.
Manatees are a major piece of Citrus County’s economy, driven in part by a rise in visitors from other countries, said Adam Thomas, director of the tourism agency Visit Citrus.
“We’ve had an uptick of 22 percent in the international market,” Thomas said.
Thomas said overall tourism swelled 11 percent in 2014 with 380,000 visitors, and it largely was because of the manatees.
“That’s our niche,” he said. “That’s kind of what separates us from everyone else in Florida.”
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